Along the Grand Union

A stroll from Birmingham to London

On Thursday 26 July 2018, I set off on a walk from Birmingham to London, determined to use no other power aside from that generated by my legs and my stubbornness.

I walked the Grand Union canal, and some of its arms and branches, from Gas Street basin to Limehouse basin and the Grapes pub, where the Thames splashes against the banks beneath me.

Eight days, 299.27 km, and some great experiences and people met.

Day 0: Birmingham, the night before

Wednesday 25 July, 2018
0 km
 

I’m walking the Grand Union canal, along with various of its arms and extensions, from Birmingham’s Gas Street basin, the inland port that throbbed with the heartbeat of the industrial revolution, to the Grapes pub, near Limehouse basin, where the Regent’s canal joins with the Thames and the empire.

I’m not entirely sure why.


Day 1: Birmingham to Warwick

Thursday 26 July, 2018
45.72 km

Hatton locks lead to heaven. Or Warwick, which is much the same thing. Birmingham’s warehouses, abandoned, renovated or repurposed, had given way to forest: green leaves, green undergrowth, green canal; even the boats, abandoned by the tow path to rust, were trying to merge into the green murkiness. Then fields, mainly of wheat, crossed occasionally by bridges, interspersed among which were pubs. The fields accompanied me to Warwick, and a cascade of locks, cataracts on the Nile.

I don’t remember much else. I guess, after 45 km, that’s rather normal. Everything blends into one: a decrepit, wooden chair, white paint peeling away, placed tidily perpendicular to my path, arm rest beckoning, mocking me, while all around not a soul was to be seen.


Day 2: Warwick to Daventry

Friday 27 July, 2018
37.1 km (82.82 km)

The golden landscapes, when, between ducking, weaving or, in all honesty, stumbling through stinging nettles and brambles, I could appreciate them, were super. But I won’t remember today for the countryside (apart from Braunston, which appeared as a vision), but for the people I met along the way, who were the ones who kept me going.

Paul is small and wizened and 61 years old, and has lived on a canalboat for 25 years. He’s taking it down to London for the first time (I imagine I’ll hate it) because of a woman (a stunner) 23 years his junior. They’d fallen in love (the summer of love!), although the regular presence of random women at Paul’s canalboat, having been thrown out of home by their partners, has caused a few problems, despite Paul’s protestations (although he admitted there was one who was trouble, having picked a fight with a blind person at a peace parade). We discussed God: me on the tow path, Paul peering up at me from his window, gnarled hands cradling a cup of tea in the early morning chill. He’s not sure whether he should pray or not, because ultimately it’s got to be people who have to help each other.

A retired couple were going through Stockton locks: they’d just walked the Wales Coastal Path, had done Offa’s Dyke the year before and, to my quip that Land’s End to John O’Groats must surely be next, replied that they’d done that the previous year (it keeps you healthy, doesn’t it?).

And, while again fighting through the stinging nettles and brambles, angry, tired and dispirited, four white hats move towards me. A family—parents, child and grandfather—beating back the stings and spines with a stick (might as well provide a public service!).

– Bit overgrown round here, eh?

– Yep; where’ve you come from?

– Warwick.

– Oh!, that’s where we’re going. Where have you come from?

– Daventry.

– Oh!, that’s where I’m going!

Did Paul send you, praying?


Day 3: Daventry to Northampton

Saturday 28 July, 2018
34.72 km (117.55 km)

I forgot my faithful companion, Mr Hat, at the hotel this morning. I locked myself out, remembered and sadly marched on into a hatless future. I didn’t meet many people today, but at Weedon Bec, I met the two most special people possible: mamma and papà, who were picking up the key to my, now former, flat in Birmingham in order to bring it to the estate agents.

I left weight with them, including my camera. There’s a lot of meaning in that sentence. And, having made a detour to pick him up, they brought me Mr Hat.

And lots of blister plasters.

Then they left me, and I ploughed through a gutsy and gusty wind. It chopped up the canal waters, tore at the tree branches, whipped through the ears of wheat, to hurl its rage at my meagre frame. But I made it to Gayton Junction and turned onto the Northampton Arm, walking to accommodation that lay away from the waters to London. The lock bridges, like I, screamed at the sky.

Tomorrow will be worse.


Day 4: Northampton to Fenny Stratford

Sunday 29 July, 2018
43.69 km (161.24 km)

I found the pub at 11, after a march of stubbornness and oblivion. It rained and rained and it winded and winded and I swam through sodden bushes and brambles. A demon was piercing the back of my heel with a red hot needle.

I ordered a tea. And an eggs royale. And staggered to the toilet wanting to cry. But no tears came, just anger and fury. Change your socks, get over it. Tie up your laces. Tighter, fuck you, tighter. You’re only halfway. Five hours, 24 km, only halfway.

I didn’t need my friend the Hat today, but my other friend, Mr Heron, met me outside the pub. Mr Heron has been there a few times, these last few days, and always when the going was tough. I wanted to hug Mr Heron, but it flew down the path I was to follow, and led me to my hallucinations. Or were they reality?

A group of women runners, in the driving rain, sharing in my madness, as I followed the canal into the sky; two others, one old, one young, who pulled a supermarket trolley, sunk like the Titanic, from the waters; a man in his boat coming from the opposite direction, miming to some rock tune, turning up the volume as I broke into a grotesque parody of a dance, so that the music continued to accompany me as I rounded the bend; being chased, at less than 3 mph, by two guys, each carrying a wheelbarrow laden with fishing tackle.

Then Mr Heron appeared once more and I asked, before all became silent and my mind ceased to work and my legs kept walking because that’s the only thing they remembered doing,

”Excuse me, Mr Heron, but did Paul the canalboat man send you, praying?”


Day 5: Fenny Stratford to Bulbourne

Monday 30 July, 2018
30.65 km (191.89 km)

The tiredness becomes mental: the wind howls among the ghosts of my mind. At Tring, the reservoirs replenish the canal and drain my soul.

Every day, hours and hours of walking, step after step, tens of thousands of them, knowing that tomorrow I will pull my boots back on, encumber aching shoulders with a rucksack that seems to get heavier, break through the pain of blistered heels, the devil’s furnace in my calves, and find once more my mule’s pace, plodding through landscapes that change oh so slowly. The green murk of the canal accompanies me, sometimes on my left, sometimes on my right, and novelty is a change in the terrain underfoot.

I mark the passage of time and kilometres by stopping every hour (four and a bit kilometres) and stretching. Neck, arms, IT band. Swigs of water (less weight to carry). Two hours in and I’m allowed a banana. Three hours, a sweet. Four, an energy bar. After that, whatever will keep me moving.

Hee-haw. I am a mule.

My friend Alex joined me for the day today, and led me by the halter. We met Mr Heron again, and I did the introductions. I am a mule.


Day 6: Bulbourne to Northwood

Tuesday 31 July, 2018
39.07 km (230.96 km)

I’m in the outskirts of London, in those leafy suburbs that exist in a state of confusion, uncertain as to whether they are now part of the city or still in the countryside. I put on my trainers and went to gawk at an underground station. Stomp.

Stomp, stomp, stomp.

It was as though I still had boots glued to my feet; I’d forgotten how to walk normally. Stomp. “That’s not how normal people walk”, said my brain to my legs. Stomp, stomp. “Isn’t it? How do normal people walk?” fired back my thighs. Stomp, stomp. “No idea.” Stomp.

The morning was blissful. Mr Heron caught a fish for breakfast, no problem at all, unlike the many fishermen I pass; and, in the ethereal green-ness of a forest, a deer was doing widths of the canal: one bank to the other, one to the other. I stood, entranced. In the distance was the noise of early morning cars, but they belonged to another world, far removed from the one I was sharing with a swimming deer, Mr Heron and invisible birds singing in the foliage.

At around half seven, I came out of the forest to marvel at the light of the still quiet sun—innocent, the whole scene caught in the purity that exists, fleetingly, fragile, between the sins of yesterday and today. I stopped, stretched, lost myself in the reflection of the clouds on the canal, and floated on.

It wasn’t to last, of course. Humanity intruded, and I was subject to its whims: a bridge raised, tow paths being resurfaced. But, ultimately, even to build the canal that accompanies me, we’ve had to take a loan from nature. Two golfers, ageing, balding, well-rounded tummies, stood perplexed on one bank of the canal, golf clubs dangling disconsolately by their sides.

Then mamma and papà turned up, unannounced, and distracted me from the pain in my knee. After a late pub lunch together, I left the canal and moved on to my accommodation, which turned out to be on top of a rather large hill. Everything was confused. A hill?

It’s like a very big bridge, Pietro, you go up one side and down the other and earth passes through the middle.

Right.

Stomp.


Day 7: Northwood to Hayes

Wednesday 1 August, 2018
24.76 km (255.72 km)

I got to bridge 184, Uxbridge Lock bridge, and crossed the border—suddenly, abruptly—into London. The totems, proudly bearing the local map (5 minutes walk, 15 minutes, a day?); the cranes; the distinctive red buses; the fancy canalside appartments with glass balconies. I admit to feeling disorientated: thankfully, the canal was still there, and the tow path still led straight on. But, on the seventh day, nobody returned my hello anymore; slowly, sadly, I stopped offering it.

I trod past litter everywhere: under benches, in the bushes, among the grass, along the tow path, thrown into the canal. Beer cans, bottles of water, juice cartons. Tissues, empty tissue packets, discarded cigarette boxes. Plastic bags, plastic wrappers, plastic containers. A canalside dotted with dog shit. Graffiti scrawled on signs.

And every mile: a black metal marker, casually discarded among the weeds, counting meaninglessly to everyone but me, the number of miles from Braunston—82, 83, 84,…—every digit whispering:

Would Paul the canalboat man like it here?

I left the canal where I was supposed to, and went to the canal-side pub my map had informed me was present when I had studied it the day before. I hoped for lunch, but it didn’t do food. It did naked ladies instead.

From inside, a woman’s voice chimes out “Kiki, do you love me?”

An ageing man, white hair, shirt, at the table outside in front of me. He touches the leg, an extension of a gaudy pink long-heeled shoe, of his female companion; she takes a drag of her cigarette.

– Kiki, do you love me? Are you riding?

He hands her some money, hidden, surreptitious, (ashamed?); she walks inside and is swallowed by the darkness beyond the doorframe.

– Kiki, do you love me? Are you riding? Say you’ll never ever leave from beside me.

I didn’t see Mr Heron today.


Day 8: Hayes to Limehouse

Thursday 2 August, 2018
43.55 km (299.27 km)

Early morning…

– Ready? asked the boots to the man.

– We’ve been good together, haven’t we? the man replied, not replying, and with something approaching sadness in his spirit.

– I suppose.

– Our last morning, our last day.

– Quite. Are you going to complain today?

Silence.

– No. Not today.

The final stretch…

Mr Heron was waiting for me as I turned onto the Paddington arm. He would fly ahead, stop, and stroll along the bank with long, languid, elegant strides, waiting for me, every so often pausing to peer inquisitively into the water, its neck and head a question mark. Eventually, I left his domain and entered that of the pigeons, who just ignored me.

So here we are. I walked from Gas Street basin in Birmingham to where the Regent’s canal kisses the Thames at Limehouse. I walked almost 300 km along the arteries of the Industrial Revolution, the lifeblood of Britain’s success in an age when roads were unreliable and railways newly born. There were moments along the walk of intense boredom, uninspiring surroundings, drab skies. But they, too, were part of the journey, part of any journey, and belong to the stories of our lives and histories of our cities.

During my long, solitary hours of walking, I thought often of the many others who are also walking: ordinary people, people like me but born in a different place, who walk to escape war, oppression, injustice, violence, famine. Who set out on walks far longer than my meagre 300 km to escape a lack of opportunities and a miserable sense of unfulfilled lives.

At any point in the last eight days, I could have stopped. For these many others—call them refugees, call them immigrants, call them people—there is only one way out: when they can no longer put one foot in front of the other, it is death that is the escape. You can find their corpses in the forgotten, hidden places of this planet.

Then there are those whose journeys we can less easily see, but whose struggles are no less real: the ill, those in pain, the lonely, the depressed, those who suffer from mental health problems, and their families.

For me, Mr Heron was a symbol of hope who appeared to give me strength whenever I needed it most; and Paul the canalboat man was a friendly, encouraging face I met along the way. To all those who today are walking, physically or mentally, may you find Mr Heron there waiting for you and a smiling person peering up at you from a canalboat beside the tow path.

I dedicate this walk, insignificant though it was, to you.